Running off-road is kinder to the joints and muscles than running on concrete and tarmac. But the more yielding and less stable surfaces typical of rough terrain work the muscles harder, according to research from the University of Western Australia.
And, if you manage to sustain the same pace as you do on road, cross-country jaunts burn more calories mile for mile. It is for all these reasons that many of Britain’s best road and track athletes hit the trails for at least some of their training.
“Cross-country running is great for building a good endurance base,” says 5,000m runner Mo Farah. “Most of the top athletes do cross-country in the winter.”
Steph Twell, who competed in the 1500m at Beijing, agrees. “Running cross-country is a time where I enjoy my running within a free environment, without the pressurised environment of running against the clock on the track,” she says. “I tend to achieve a greater volume of training during the cross-country season to give me strength for the following track season.”
But the issue of specificity is important. In other words, you need to train on the surfaces you intend to race on.
“I generally train on the track twice a week, but sometimes only once a week during the winter months,” says 5,000m and 10,000m runner Jo Pavey.
“I also do trail runs and sessions on the road to vary the surface,” says Jo. “Fortunately, the parks near where I live allow offer a mixture of trail, road and grass. I find it important to slightly increase the amount of training on the road in the lead-up to a road race, in order for my legs to cope with the impact during the event.”
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